Interview: Brenda Guiled on the Karate Way, Okinawa and Dance

I was lucky enough to stumble across the delightful, generous, warm and wonderfully sharp person that is Brenda through a Facebook group for women who practise martial arts. In a discussion on the role of martial arts in recovery and healing from mental illness, Brenda posted her short piece on the body-mind-spirit connection, plotting out her journey as a martial artist in correlation with the unity of body-mind-spirit. I was moved by her love for karate and the way she conceptualised her relationship between these three elements of herself. Following on from this early interaction, Brenda and I have been exchanging ideas and emails around karate, martial arts and her book ‘Dancing in the Kara of Te’.

(Brenda is a black belt in Okinawa go-ju (hard-soft) kara-te with over 23 years of experience and is the founder of Salt Spring Shorei-Kan dojo on Salt Spring Island, Canada)

Dancing in the Kara of Te opens with a look into the first written account (in 1816) of Okinawan dance and kara-te. The dance witnessed by a British colonialist was performed by a remarkable Okinawan man called Maehira. I wanted to know more about Brenda’s relationship with Kara-te and its roots in Okinawan dance.

(Naha port, Okinawa, from Captain Basil Hall’s journal depicting his 1816 encounters in Okinawa)

I realise that you mention in your writings that you don’t feel sufficiently historically grounded to render a deep historical recollection of Okinawan kara-te. However, I found your account very informative and riveting …

Brenda: Much appreciated, but such caution is necessary. The Caucasian-Canadian wife of the good friends who hosted me in Okinawa took me to task about any non-Okinawan daring to say anything about the place and people. To my shock, she ended our friendship over my refusal to state any opinion about one of our very senior white-guy teachers performing a kata to western music. I was a junior belt then, so didn’t think it my place to say, plus she and I both knew that he had cleared his music choice with the Okinawan head of the entire international organization. When you lose a friend over such a thing, it’s very daring to write anything about Okinawa, even as a tourist who hopes that in-depth, on-going study allows for careful comment.

I would very much like to understand your opinion on the presentation of kara-te as uniquely “Japanese”, and whether you think that this term is historically placed to encompass kara-te’s Okinawan roots. Does the idea of kara-te as Japanese obfuscate its origins and cultural grounding?

Brenda: Absolutely. Even in “The Karate Kid” movies, old master Miyagi rejects being called Japanese, insisting on “Okinawan”. In Okinawa, albeit for only one brief visit 25 years ago, I saw, heard about, and talked with numerous young Okinawan women who refused to date or marry Japanese men. A movie that embodies the dichotomies and confusions about the Okinawan-Japanese-American amalgam is “Hotel Hibiscus”, 2002, which I can’t find to stream, download, or buy now. Too bad. Here’s a summary.

I watched it with my sensei, a rare Japanese man to marry an Okinawan woman (met when he was studying the history of Okinawa and karate for his master’s thesis at Okinawa’s Ryu-Kyu University). He helped me understand much of the symbolism and depth that I’d have missed otherwise, starting with the hibiscus being the Okinawan symbol of loss of “mabui”/spirit, i.e. death. Scroll down to Mabui here, where the movie is mentioned.

If you have time, please read Gichin Funikoshi’s autobiography, which covers the difficulties Okinawans faced when taken over by Japan. You can get a used copy for a good price here. He also makes clear, by stating three times in different ways, that the karate way is not competitive. He’s spinning in his grave over how it’s been turned into a win-lose sport by Japanese and American interests who have severed the movements of the art from their Okinawan roots and purposes. What most of the world knows today as “karate” shouldn’t bear the name. It’s fine for what it is, but it most definitely isn’t karate, which, by definition, is the karate-way.

In terms of understanding dance and kara-te, do you find it useful to separate the two?

Brenda: Impossible. There is no separation. “The essence of the karate way,” my teacher’s teacher, Seikichi Toguchi wrote, “is the ability to smile at any occasion.” Not that you do smile, except when appropriate, but that the ability is always there. That’s the dance inside – the karate way, which is a deep expression of the Okinawan way. There is no karate itself, there is only the karate-way, which has a dance inside, or it’s just movement craft, not even an art.

What do you think would be the outcome of teaching martial arts as being integrated with dance? You mention in your writing that you believe that teaching the inner kara-te dance could help students aspire to a kind of flow and integration of dance with their martial arts –

Brenda: First, the karate way is not a martial art. There’s nothing martial – Mars, the god of war – about it. I consistently call it a self-defence art, which it most certainly is, plus a whole bunch more, because it’s always karate-DO, or the way, the path, the journey of body-mind-spirit integration where one never throws the first strike, then invoking every possible strategy to avoid striking to get to win-win solutions. These strategies go through four stages: getting away, changing the dynamic with good humour, positioning to de-escalate, then taking physical control such that the person feels inordinate pain, with the risk of breaking themselves if they dare to move. Only when dire injury and death are in the balance is it okay to strike, then striking and killing are done as quickly and efficiently as possible, to end the problem mercifully.

‘The first priority of kara-te is to serve justice – to do oneself justice, as well as our relationships, our community, the world beyond, and the art itself.’ This is such a beautiful mantra to live by! I’m really curious, how do you feel you’ve been able to apply this to your own kara-te journey and wider life? How has this mantra transformed for you as you’ve made your way through your kara-te journey?

Brenda: Nothing has transformed for me. As a kid, like all kids, I had a profound sense of what was fair and not fair. I never let go of my “justice antennae”, nor my certainty when others are played for fools, dupes, suckers, scapegoats, powerless beings, as well as demi-gods, above others, etc. It’s the ultimate disservice to the human soul, leading to all the ills of the world.

At age 10, I started to actively consider what it takes to be a good teacher – to pass on the best of what we know and have learned. While taking an M.Sc. in Education, I learned about many, many teaching theories and applications. While some addressed justice indirectly, none had any overt method for ensuring that it’s done, for all students individually and collectively, for the subjects at hand, for the greater world and good. Only when I stumbled into the traditional Okinawan karate-way did I find the philosophy and tools needed to do this. Despite having some crappy teachers, with the egos of too many of them destroying everything they’d worked for and hypocritically said they believed in, the art kept shining through.

The karate-way, when understood and lived, becomes a self-correcting art. The answers are within it. This makes it a self-teaching art, a self-purifying study. Thus, the karate-way purifies the body-mind-spirit integration of those who follow this path. Which is to say, it has clarified who and what I have been all along, no transformation whatever, rather coming into my own. There is no arrival, because there’s no such thing, just continual strengthening of the foundation of justice, so that key truths come clear, from which trust can grow, leading to win-wins every step of the way, inside and out, for one’s self, those encountered, the community, and the larger world.

The karate-way is also a dream, a spirit, a ghost, a shadow-art. We can only achieve these things when we acknowledge these things and learn to dance with them.

If you’re interested in reading Brenda’s book ‘Dancing in the Kara of Te’ in full, you can purchase the book on her website here.

Fighter Interview: Bushin’s Fiona Lee

Fiona Lee is a black belt in Bushin and Shorinji Kempo. By day, Fiona works as an auditor at an investment bank, assessing its internal controls and risk management practices. By night, Fiona is a fierce fighter and assistant instructor at Bushin.


What made you get into martial arts?

Well, I started martial arts in my first year at university. The short answer is (laughs) – I did it because at university we were told that in order to get a job, you need to make your CV look better. So not just studying, not just working, you have to have something else. So I thought, ‘okay great, what can I do that is something different that will make me stand out compared to everybody else?’. I went through the university sports schedule and found that they offered martial arts classes. My brothers did martial arts at the time, so I decided that I’d also try it out!

At university, I picked the first martial art that was early enough in the day, and that happened to be Shorinji Kempo (laughs), which is where I met Cailey. It (the Shorinji Kempo class) was at 6pm, I remember. My last lecture ended at around 5pm, so my logic was that the one after Shorinji Kempo, which was Aikido, started at 8pm and I didn’t want to have to be in the library for around 3 hours after my lecture! Shorinji Kempo left me one hour to study between my lecture and the class.

I do remember that my first class was so intensive – but I did like it, or else I wouldn’t have carried on – that the next day I wasn’t able to walk. It was that intensive that I had to walk up and down stairs backwards! But I still enjoyed it, so it must have been a good sign.

So what made you stick it out? When I was at uni I started an Aikido class, but never continued with it as I found it too intensive at the time – my legs could not stretch that way!

I stuck with it because I actually enjoyed being with the people because none of the club members were students and that was a fresh perspective. Having been around students pretty much all day, I didn’t want to be stuck with them. I got to talk to people who had seen a bit more of life and were older than me, and I could just talk to them normally.

It was also an escape from studying. I was beating myself up through studying, saying things like ‘you’re never going to be good enough to get a job,’ etc. It became the only world that I had where I had a bit more control and I knew what I was good at or what I was okay at – and that I could see myself getting better in it. It was quite ego boosting for me.

That’s nice though! A lot of martial artists I’ve spoken to have said that part of why they continue to practice martial arts is that it has helped them with their anxiety, or making them feel more self confident, for example.

I had a lot of anger, and I needed to get that out – so it was my outlet for that as well. With all the frustrations of life, I could take it out in a safe environment and through an acceptable outlet. And I was learning something too, and I felt good that I was good at something. It made me believe that I could do Kempo well, and so I started to really view it as my niche.

I also found out very quickly in Kempo that I was very different to everyone else; a lot of techniques didn’t work on me because I have a low centre of gravity and am a bit more flexible than other people. I was also the only girl in the club for a long time and the only white belt in a group of black belts and brown belts. Accepting that difference, I kind of just got on with it, and thought to myself, well nobody is going to judge me for being wrong because I’m still new and I have a reason to be a little bit crappy?! And that drove me to be better and try and do it over and over again, and try and prove myself a lot more.

If you’re new to something and not sure what it entails, seeing someone who you think relates to you more, is important tweet this

So there were no other white belts besides you?!

Nope, it was just me for a good nine months, until after my first grading in the summer. So I started in January and six months later I did my first grading and then one by one more girls turned up, and people from different clubs started to join in the summer. It felt good at the time, like a different world. Somewhere where I felt comfortable and happy; an escape.

Do you think that it helps to have another woman who is more established in the club in order to encourage more women to join?

I think so. If you’re new to something and not sure what it entails, seeing someone who you think relates to you more is important. And seeing that if something doesn’t work, being able to think ‘if she can do it, then I can do it too’. It’s also good to have somebody to talk to, especially because techniques don’t work for everyone – we’re not all built the same way, we’re not the same height, same weight or people with the same physiology, so being able to share that with someone who is open to talking about it – not that the guys didn’t want to talk about it – but I think their approach was slightly different to that of a woman. For men, they can drive technique through with power, and it becomes a lot more like a ‘strength game’. Whereas for many women with a lot of the techniques that we do, especially with grappling for example, it’s not all about weight – it’s about how you move your entire body. You then quickly learn that you don’t need to necessarily use your entire arm strength against someone else – I can actually use my entire body weight against their arm. You end up being more in-tune with your own body. Some of the men that I trained with had stiffer hips, but could rely on their arm strength so they didn’t really see it that way, so it was good to talk to another woman who saw it the same way as me.

Why did you decide to move onto something like Bushin? It’s quite dissimilar to a more traditional martial art like Shorinji Kempo.

For a lot of reasons, I felt like I had to move on; I was going through a period of my life where things just seemed to stall. At that time, I’d finished my undergraduate, I didn’t know where to go in life and there were a lot of things happening at once. I was thinking, ‘what am I going to do with myself?’. And it sort of effected me emotionally, which went into my training as well, all while there was a lot of club politics going on too. I felt that it was important for me to take a break, just to figure out my next step. I didn’t want to carry on going through the same things where I felt frustrated, where I felt that I’d reached my peak a little bit. There was no-one there who I felt that I could train with who was on the same wavelength, and I was asking myself ‘should I try something completely different?’.

I think it was one of those crossroad moments where it was like, ‘do I want to carry on doing the old thing, or do I want to try something new and see what else I can do? Did I want to start afresh, like what I had when I first started Kempo?’. I needed to find something that makes me feel good. So, I decided to start with a clean slate, and start again.

But, it wasn’t easy! Coming from Kempo, Bushin was completely different, and if you ask Cailey, he’d probably agree that I wasn’t the best person in the room as I had a lot of old habits. I found it harder to adapt compared to the others who started Bushin as well. It was really difficult. I couldn’t figure it out in my head and I started over analysing things that I used to do in Kempo, like ‘you have to step this way, or your hand has to be over here’. But then I learnt with Bushin that I can actually learn to rely on my own intuition: if something feels right, then that’s what I should go with. I shouldn’t have to go down this ‘step here, move your hand here’ step-by-step thing if it doesn’t work for me. I had to learn to trust myself to say nah, I’m going to take a bit of a risk and adapt it my own way early and see if it works. If it doesn’t work, I’ll just try something else.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to a woman starting her first class?

I think you have to know why you’re doing it. If you’re just doing it because you feel unfit, that’s fine! You can do something that will help you get fit through martial arts – whether that be a full-contact martial art, or a boxercise class. I mean to be honest I had a pretty shallow reason for getting into it, ‘it’ll look good on my CV! It will help me get a job!’ – but it never got me a job interview, at all! I kept with it because I enjoyed it and I did it for me.

I think the thing I would probably say to anyone starting out is – do what makes you happy. If you want to do something that just involves hitting a couple of pads, that’s fine. Or if you want to do a martial art that involves more contact, that’s fine. If you want to do something where you really just want to hit someone in full-contact, that’s fine too — just do it in a safe way (laughs)! Just make sure you’re not breaking any laws, it’s fine as long as you find a safe environment for you!

Just do it, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, find out why it doesn’t work and make it work! It made me less risk averse and more able to just do things. – tweet this

How much has your motivation to take up martial arts changed now?

It’s changed a lot, I think it’s taken a bit more of my life than I ever anticipated. Even though I had very shallow reasons to start a martial art in the beginning, doing it changed my perspective on life quite a lot, and the way I think as well. For example, when you try and break down a technique, I learnt to approach it in a very logical and systematic way, combined with intuition. And that’s how I try to approach day-to-day tasks now, and that’s how I am at work. I think that it really has affected the way that I think, the way I approach things. It’s probably even affected the way I talk to people as well! It really has infused with my way of life.

It also made me more confident talking to people from different backgrounds. That’s why I really appreciate starting out in a club where there were no students. Growing up I wasn’t very confident and I found it really difficult to talk to people at all – I was painfully shy. But then, starting university I decided that I was going to be a new person, as you do (laughs). One of my university lecturers told me ‘if you want to be confident, you have to fake confidence’, so I thought that if I wanted to talk to people from different backgrounds, I had to jump right in and just do it!

I take that approach with most things, especially in martial arts. Just do it, and maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. If it doesn’t work, find out why it doesn’t work and make it work! It made me less risk averse and more able to just do things.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years time?

It’s quite difficult, because I feel like I’m at the stage in my life where I want to focus more on my career. Getting to this point, I was just focusing on my ‘martial arts career’ as it were. And now, as I’m more confident in other aspects of my life, I want to invest more energy and effort into that. My work career is going to take more of a precedence now, so I’m probably going to have to dial back the amount of energy I invest into martial arts, but I’m not going to give it up – I’m just going to find a different way of approaching it.

I’ve passed that phase of thinking that I need to be the best and win competitions, I’ve already done that. That’s not my ultimate goal anymore. My goal now for my martial arts career is to find what I’m good at, and find new ways to be better at it. Also, I’d like to try different sports too. I tried Aikido for a while, but it didn’t really work for me so I stopped. I’ve now taken up yoga, which is completely different, but I feel that it will compliment my martial arts. It’s good for focusing on your core, so it doesn’t surprise me to hear that many martial artists are taking up yoga and pilates! I’ve also been going to the gym more to do strength training, which compliments what I do, but I’ve found that it also hinders me in terms of limiting my flexibility! So, I’m trying to find that balance. At this point in time, i’m still trying to understand what works for me rather than trying to be better than everybody else. I’m just trying to prove myself more and more.

I think that sometimes, not just in martial arts or sports, you can end up chasing an ideal…

Yes, wanting to be the best and be recognised – ‘I know her, she’s the best’. But I’ve kind of passed that now. That’s never really been a priority to be honest, I just wanted to compete with myself more. I don’t think I should beat myself up anymore when I’m in competition with myself, I should just appreciate what I have at the moment and use that as a motivation to be better rather than believing that I’m not good enough and beat myself up in order to be better. It’s a different kind of mindset, because I’m getting older. I’m not going to be the best anymore because my body is already starting to fall apart! Like, I had knee problems, my knee snapped and I couldn’t squat for a while; I had a fractured wrist a year ago and it’s not the same as it was before. A lot of things have made me appreciate that I need to not be so harsh on myself and just understand that if I’m rubbish at something… That’s okay!

Does Fiona’s experiences resonate with your own martial arts journey? Let us know in the comment section below!

* Music in trailer video sampled from Object Blue‘s track ‘In the station of the metro‘ *